Feature Flags Guide

Your Guide to Feature Flags

Our comprehensive feature flagging guide is here to provide you with expert insights to help you optimize your website’s performance and enhance user experiences.

Feature Flags: What are they and how to use them?

Feature flags have become a staple for DevOps and software development teams to release features quickly and safely. Feature flags can be used for a wide range of purposes and are referred to in a number of ways from feature toggles to feature flippers but the core concept remains the same.

This guide will take you through the concept of feature flags, why and how they are used by teams today, their implementation, and some of their pros and cons.

Feature flags are a software development tool whose purpose is to turn functionalities on or off in order to safely test in production by separating code deployment from feature release.

Thus, a feature flag ranges from a simple IF statement to more complex decision trees, which act upon different variables.

There are many types of feature flags, categorized based on their dynamism and longevity that serve different purposes.

Short vs long-lived feature flags

When we talk about longevity, we are referring to feature flags that are either meant to stay in your system for a short period of time while other flags could stay for years.

For example, feature flags may be short-lived to temporarily deploy new changes and test in production while other long-term flags, such as kill switches, remain in your system longer. Therefore, you will need to manage different feature toggles or flags depending on how they’re deployed.

Keep reading: Short vs Long-lived Feature Flags

Dynamic vs static feature flags

In terms of dynamism, which is how often you need to modify a flag in its lifetime, there are two categories of flags:

  • Dynamic- allow their value to be changed at runtime.
  • Static- only change through actual code changes or configuration file changes.

To learn more about the differences between static and dynamic flags and where to store them depending on which category they fall under, read our best practices article on where to store feature flags.

We can further break down feature flags into various categories of toggles, which should be managed differently. In other words, you will need to manage different feature toggles or flags depending on how they’re deployed. The main categories are:

  • Release toggles
  • Experimental toggles
  • Operational toggles
  • Permission toggles

For more details on these different categories of feature toggles, refer to this article.

You can never have too much of a good thing and yet nothing is perfect. There are times when you may run into some pitfalls while using feature flags so while their use is encouraged and brings great benefit to your team’s workflow, proceed with caution, especially if you’re relying on an in-house feature flagging platform.

1. Complexity

As use cases evolve over time, managing feature flags can become complex, especially with in-house systems lacking the necessary sophistication to support products.

2. Messy code & coordination

Accumulating feature flags in your system can result in messy code. Scattered conditional statements disrupt system flow, making it difficult to pinpoint issues during debugging

3. Technical debt

If stale, unused flags remain in your system, this would eventually lead to the accumulation of technical debt so flags will need to be cleaned up once they are used and are no longer active.

Benefits of feature flags

There is no denying that feature flags have become a necessity when releasing new features rapidly and safely. Having an efficient feature management system can help streamline release processes. The following is just some of the ways that they can bring value to your software development and release processes.

1. Continuous delivery

Feature flags allow teams to practice trunk-based development without the risk of long-lived branches and the dreaded merge hell.

2. Increase rate of production

Feature flags enable risk-free production testing, leading to faster feature releases to users and higher-quality, less buggy outcomes.

3. Continuous experimentation

Feature flags allow you to frequently validate your changes by testing on a subset of users and measure performance based on the chosen KPIs.

4. Risk mitigation

By decoupling deployment from release and releasing to a small number of users to detect any bugs and if any issues arise during testing, you can simply turn off the feature flag in production by rolling back the buggy feature.

5. Feature rollback

Feature flags empower you to deactivate a feature if it malfunctions by using a kill switch.

6. Give early access

Feature flags enable releasing features to early adopters who provide valuable feedback for product improvement, ideal for risky releases you’re hesitant to share with a wider audience.

7. Bypass app store validation

With feature flags, you can test new releases on smaller segments of your audience without needing to wait for app store approval (which can be lengthy).

Integrate feature flags in software development

Software usually goes through a series of stages or phases to produce high-quality software through the software development life cycle (SDLC). The phases incorporated depend on the methodology used but the basic principles of SDLC are more or less the same. For more information about the software life cycle, you can read more in our article about the different stages of the SDLC in conventional and Agile methodologies. Based on the above, at the beginning of any software development process, teams and organizations must decide what methodology they will adopt to ensure high-quality products. Waterfall and Agile are two of the most popular methods though Agile is rapidly gaining traction over Waterfall.

  • Waterfall methodology is more of a traditional model. It adopts a linear approach to software development where each phase flows downward, like a waterfall, to the next; each stage must be completed before the next one begins.
  • Meanwhile, Agile methodology is one that takes on a team-based approach to development. Instead of planning for the whole project, it breaks down development into small batches completed in stages. What makes Agile development innovative is it shifts the focus to the user as it relies on a very high level of customer involvement throughout the project.

However, incorporating feature flags into your release is what differentiates an agile roadmap from a Waterfall roadmap, which helps you stay focused on your core user-alignment activities. Read more to find out why an Agile methodology is the right way to go for modern software development and why you need to incorporate feature flags into your agile roadmap to keep your products moving in the right direction. When it comes to release management strategies, there are some strategies to choose from depending on your use cases.

  • Trunk-based development is a branching model where developers collaborate in a single branch and make smaller changes more frequently. The idea behind this practice is to limit long-lived branches that may lead to ‘merge hell’. This is usually a good strategy to use to get features out fast.
  • Feature branching, on the other hand, is when developers work separately on a branch and then once their changes are completed, they merge them into the mainline. This is an efficient method to manage large-scale projects with a large number of developers working on specific features.

There are many practices that need to be applied when working with feature flags. The following are some best practices that you will need to consider and implement to make your feature flag journey as smooth as possible:

You need to make sure that every now and then you are removing flags from your system that are no longer in use. Some flags are only meant to be short-lived and serve a one-time purpose so these need to be cleaned out of your system.

Choosing a feature flagging platform

Once you’ve decided you prefer to get a 3rd party solution, choosing the best feature flag management service to match your needs may prove to be a challenge. Visit our feature flag service comparison section to see how AB Tasty stacks up against other solutions.

AB Tasty’s Feature Experimentation and Experience Rollouts may just be the solution you’re seeking, where it has been dubbed as a leader in the The Forrester New Wave™: Feature Management & Experimentation, Q2 2021 report.

AB Tasty not only allows you to turn features on and off but it gives you full control over your feature releases by wrapping your features in flags and rolling them out based on the specific flag values you assign to different user segments. You can then make informed decisions according to the metrics and KPIs you choose.

If you would like more information on getting started with our server-side functionality, check out our documentation to help you get started.

How to implement feature flags

A typical feature flag implementation is based on (1) a management service that defines the flag, (2) a run-time query to figure out the value of the flag, and (3) an if-else programming construct.

There are many ways to implement feature flags. The simplest and often the starting point is to use if/else statements directly in your code.

You can also rely on open source projects and many libraries are available for your preferred programming language. Read more about the Top 10 feature flag related projects on GitHub.

However, feature flags go beyond simple boolean states to more complex logical statements. Therefore, if you want to delve into more advanced uses, you will need more complex feature flag management tools.

Before embarking on your feature flag implementation journey, it is important to consider the following:

  • Identify pain points– it is important to consider your objectives and what issues you are trying to tackle in your software development process and in production.
  • Determine your use cases– in other words, consider why you want to use feature flags and who will be using them in your organization besides developers.
  • Consider whether to build or buy– there are many factors to consider when deciding whether you’re better off building or buying a feature flagging management system.